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WH Letter to Barr criticizes Mueller report. TRANSCRIPT: 5/2/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Elizabeth Bumiller, Jackie Calmes, Elliot Williams, Clint Watts,David Jolly

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Senator Chuck Grassley and the rest of the Republicans in the Senate and the House don`t remember any of that.  That`s tonight`s LAST WORD.  "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, President Trump declares the investigation into his campaign, his election and presidency is done.  He says he won`t let his former lawyer Don McGahn testify while his White House tries to be seen as taking a victory lap.

The Democrats on the other hand make an awkward show of the Attorney General`s no-show before their committee today.  It featured a chicken theme and an empty chair while their speaker was all business, accusing Bill Barr of committing a crime, lying to Congress.

And tonight we`ve learned those House Democrats may be dealing with Robert Mueller directly to schedule his testimony. All of it as THE 11TH HOUR gets under way on a Thursday night.

And good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  Day 833 of the Trump administration and the President has just made the latest move in this standoff between the White House and the Democrats in Congress.  Trump now says he`s inclined to just say no to his former White House Counsel Don McGahn testifying before Congress.  The House Judiciary Committee has already subpoenaed McGahn, who, of course, is a star witness in the Mueller report, as he spelled out the President`s efforts to undermine the Russia investigation and get rid of Mueller.  Here`s what the President told Fox News tonight when asked if he`d allow McGahn to appear before Congress.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I`ve had him testifying already for 30 hours.


TRUMP:  And it`s really -- so I don`t think I can let him and then tell everybody else you can, because especially him because he was a counsel.  So they`ve testified for many hours, all of them. Many, many, many people - -

HERRIDGE:  So as far as you`re it`s as far as you`re concerned, it`s kind of done, it`s done.

TRUMP:  I can`t say, well, one can and the others can`t.

HERRIDGE:  So is it done?

TRUMP:  I would say it`s done.  We`ve been through this.  Nobody has ever done what I`ve done.  I`ve given total transparency.  It`s never happened before like this.

HERRIDGE:  So Congress should be --

TRUMP:  They shouldn`t be looking anymore.  This is all -- it`s done.

I assumed that for the $35 million they`ve gone through everything, my taxes, my financial statements, which are phenomenal.  They`ve gone through everything and I`m still clean.

Think of it, after 2 1/2 years and all that money spent, nothing.  Very few people could have sustained that.


WILLIAMS:  Democrats on the Hill want Robert Mueller himself to appear.  And a source tells NBC News tonight the House Judiciary Committee has begun discussions directly with Mueller`s team about him coming to testify.  Nothing finalized.  No date has been set.  The committee had been in discussions with the Justice Department about Mueller`s appearance because Mueller, after all, remains an employee of the Justice Department.

On another front, Democrats on that same committee weighing their next move.  Attorney General Bill Barr stood them up today after spending hours yesterday testifying before the Senate Committee.  House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler of New York dramatically gaveled the hearing into order this morning anyway and later blasted Barr for not showing up and for with holing the full Mueller report.


REP. JERROLD NADLER, (D) NEW YORK, CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY CMTE.:  The failure of Attorney General Barr to come to the hearing today is simply another step in the administration`s growing attack on American democracy and its attack on the right of Congress to be a coordinate branch of government.  We will make one more good faith attempt to negotiate and to get the -- to get the access to the report that we need and then -- and then, if we don`t get that we will proceed to hold the Attorney General in contempt.

KASIE HUNT, NBC NEWS CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT:  And how long are you going to give the Attorney General to answer your questions and to negotiate in good faith before you hold him in contempt?

NADLER:  A day or two.


WILLIAMS:  Speaker Pelosi appears to have had it with Attorney General Barr. The administration`s defines of Congressional requests for documents and witnesses as well.


REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) CALIFORNIA, HOUSE SPEAKER:  When the articles of impeachment for President Nixon, Article III was that he ignored the subpoenas of Congress, that he did not honor the subpoenas of Congress.  This is very, very serious.

HUNT:  Did the Attorney General commit a crime?

PELOSI:  He lied to Congress.  He lied to Congress.  If anybody else did that it would be considered a crime.  Nobody is above the law.  Not the President of the United States and not the Attorney General.


WILLIAMS:  Pelosi was referring there to Barr`s assertion during two hearings last month that he was unaware of Mueller`s objections to characterizations of his report, even though we now know Mueller had written him to complain and they had spoken by phone.

Meanwhile, the Trump White House continues to attack the whole investigation, and today they released a letter from the President`s current counsel, Emmet Flood.  This was originally delivered to the Attorney General back on April 19th, that`s one day after the release of Mueller`s findings.  It`s a five-page letter.  It`s highly critical of Mueller`s conclusions.

Flood writes in part, and we quote, "The special counsel`s office produced a prosecutorial curiosity, part truth commission report and part law school exam paper."  He added that Mueller`s refusal to exoneration the President was a political decision, "exoneration statements can be understand only as political statements issuing from persons who are in our system of government are rightly expected never to be political in the performance of their duties."

The letter reads as if they knew this day was coming.  As Flood goes on to say, Trump`s decision not to assert privilege in regards to the report "does not affect his ability as President to instruct his advisers to decline to appear before congressional committees to answer questions on these same subjects.  The President is determined to protect from congressional scrutiny not only the advice rendered by his own advisers but also by advisers to future Presidents."

Former Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who wrote the regs under which Mueller was appointed, notes that this letter from Flood is indeed part of a strategy from this White House.


NEAL KATYAL, FMR. ACTING U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL:  You`re really seeing the collapse of -- really the chicken`s coming home to roost staying like the collapse of any respect for law at the White House and the Justice Department is becoming evident to everyone.

The letter today by the White House lays out a pretty clear attack on the Special Counsel, on Mueller and an attempt to try and stop him, I think, if I`m reading the tea leaves correctly, from testifying.


WILLIAMS:  Here for our leadoff discussion on this Thursday night, Elizabeth Bumiller, Washington Bureau Chief for "The New York Times."  Jackie Calmes, White House Editor do "The Los Angeles Times."  Elliot Williams, former Federal Prosecutor who was also Deputy Assistant Attorney General and former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Good evening and welcome to you all.

Elizabeth, where do we stand tonight?  The Democrats really fumbled their moment today, as some had predicted.  Trump is making hay amid all the chicken imagery.  Where do you put this as of tonight?

ELIZABETH BUMILLER, THE NEW YORK TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF:  Well, I think in the next few days as you heard from Jerry Nadler they will hold the President in contempt of Congress.  That doesn`t do a whole lot for them because as -- in that case the Justice Department determines whether or not the Attorney General is actually in contempt.  We can imagine where that goes.

At that point the -- Jerry Nadler, the House will have to sue in a federal court and if -- if -- if the Attorney General loses in court then he`s held in contempt of court.  However, the Justice Department is the ruler on that as well.

Nonetheless, a federal judge could go and appoint his own prosecutor to go after -- to go after the Attorney General.  The bottom line here is this will take many, many months, this kind of legal maneuvering, and like many things -- the President is stonewalling on many fronts.  It looks like his strategy is just to run out the clock and go as far as he can.  Again, this could go through court for many, many months and we will not see any kind of testimony from people that the Democrats want to hear from.

WILLIAMS:  Jackie Calmes, it seems clear Trump found his man for Attorney General.  What recourse do you view the Democrats is having?

JACKIE CALMES, LOS ANGELES TIMES, WHITE HOUSE EDITOR:  Well, we still need to figure out if they`re going to be able to talk to Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel, and up until now we`ve heard nothing from him.  And that`s created this sort of paradox for him where he`s got the stature and the gravitas that`s given the report he put out, this 448-page report, the -- it`s elevated it, you know, the hope was that people could take it -- that all people could take from it, you know, take it seriously, and yet he`s been silent while Donald Trump and now Bill Barr have defined it for the public and they`ve defined it in a way -- and we now see in Emmet Flood`s letter that is critical of Robert Mueller.

And so it`s imperative I think at this point -- and the Congress will -- the Democratic Congress at least will believe that they need to get Robert Mueller testifying in public about this so we finally hear what he thinks because we know from the letter he wrote on March 27th to Bill Barr that we weren`t getting an accurate rendering of Bob Mueller`s thinking from Bill Barr himself.

And I think the White House has -- the administration has to fear Bob Mueller`s testimony because once he begins to talk we will see a man who -- people forget, this is a former FBI director who served a dozen years after J. Edgar Hoover`s abuses of office Congress passed a law to limit FBI directors to 10 years.  A president of his opposite party, Barack Obama, passed a law through Congress, signed it into law and Robert Mueller served an additional two years.  So he`s the only FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover to not only served the full 10 years but to get two more by a bipartisan act of Congress.  And this is not a man who is, you know, they can easily slander if he`s out there talking for himself.

WILLIAMS:  Absolutely.

Elliot, we`ve yet to be able to speak to you since the testimony.  Two-part question for you.  What did you find most egregious, given your employment history with DOJ, from yesterday`s hearing?  And name a successful legal pathway forward for the Democrats.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  Well, those are two very big questions.  So, wait.  A successful legal pathway forward, were we in normal times, they would negotiate terms for having the Attorney General come out and testify before Congress.  Unfortunately we are not in normal times and the Executive Branch, the President has made clear that he intends to thwart any attempt for Congress to exercise its oversight authority.  Remember, this is bigger than Don McGahn or William Barr or any, you know, or one of these individuals.

President has made it clear he`s going to direct members of the Executive Branch to not comply with subpoenas.  Just this week the House Oversight Committee, there were subpoenas for the immigration census-related matter and the background check -- the security clearance matter and they just, you know, disregarded those subpoenas.  The House Judiciary Committee saw its subpoena for the full Mueller report disregarded.

So this is a bigger reshaping and rethinking of the relationship between the executive -- and the respect that the Executive Branch has for Congress.  And it`s really striking.  You know, it`s -- there`s a lot of manufactured legal arguments here where the President has, you know, sort of having it both ways.  He wants to claim executive, you know, claim that he`s the most transparent President in history and so on and so on but then manufacture these legal arguments over executive privilege where it really, really doesn`t exist.  I think --

WILLIAMS:  And what stood out to you from Barr yesterday?

E. WILLIAMS:  I think just the wordsmithing.  I think there was a lot of, you know, so for instance, not being able to answer the question from Kamala Harris, which was the one kill shot of the day yesterday, sort of where she drew blood.  Or not being able to answer the question has the President directed -- I don`t want to get the wording precisely right -- wrong -- has the President directed you to investigate anybody or whatever the wording was.  And of course he will tried to parse it and wordsmith it a little.

Based what we know about this President and how he has incorrectly treated his political adversaries, it seems undeniable that the President would have asked or at least intimated or suggested or hinted all of these wordsmithing words that, you know, that the Attorney General go after his opponents.  We`ve seen instances of this with Whitaker, with Barr, and yes, but with Whitaker and with Attorney General Sessions.

So it seems undeniable that the President would have asked that.  And I think Barr trying to sort of slip into lawyer mode, you know, what did you mean by suggest, Senator Harris, was a little bit too cute by half I think.

WILLIAMS:  Jackie, I want to back up to your portrait of Mueller.  And here`s the case.  For Democrats, don`t blow your chance, be careful what you wish for.  The visual Democrats left the world with today was a bucket of chicken.  That`s -- at the end of the day, that`s it.  We`re in a visual industry.  That`s it.

Are they about to blow out of proportion an appearance by Robert Mueller, who measures each word like a carpenter and put the turn in taciturn?

CALMES:  Well, you know, it`s a good question.  Time will tell, but there was a lot of second guessing and hand wringing after the report, the Mueller report came out that the Democrats had been waiting for this and we`re hoping that Robert Mueller and his team would find chargeable offenses.  And at the same time people were warning, you know, Robert Mueller is an employee of the Justice Department in this instance and Justice Department policy explicitly precludes indicting a sitting President.  And we saw in the report that Mueller hued to that line, and so Democrats were disappointed.

I think having been tempered in what came out of the report itself that Democrats would go into hearings with Mueller with, you know, less inflated hopes of -- I mean, nobody`s going to expect Robert Mueller to sit at a witness table and start blasting the White House and the sitting President.  This is a temperate man by any estimation.

And so, you know, I also don`t think they`re going to have buckets of chicken at their table when they have Robert Mueller behind -- before them.  But who knows.

WILLIAMS:  There`s always hope.  Yes.

Hey, Elizabeth, from our colleagues over at "Time" magazine, I want to read you something.  "Mueller`s recently released 448-page final report suggests the President has learned a different lesson from that of his predecessors.  Rather than defer to the constraints that Nixon`s downfall imposed on the presidency, Trump has sought to dismantle them.  Trump is using the Mueller report it self to expand the power of the chief executive."

I`m reminded by our mutual friend Peter Baker that this was infrastructure week and look what we`re talking about tonight.

BUMILLER:  Right.  It`s been infrastructure week for most -- many weeks of this presidency.  So I think the, you know, I think that -- here`s the interesting thing, we are talking about this in very intricate nuanced detail.  What`s interesting to me is it`s just not a topic out on the campaign trail.  People are talking about health care.  They`re talking about, you know, jobs.  And we`re discussing of this.

I don`t think it -- it hasn`t really moved anybody one way or another out on the campaign.  Perhaps it`s sent Trump down a few points, but right now this is very much of a Washington story.  Again, we`ll see what Mueller has to say.  He`s supposedly -- they`re talking about May 15th as the date for Mueller.

I do think it would have been interesting to have heard from Don McGahn.  Don McGahn knows a great deal.  He knows a great deal about the -- what the President`s intent in all of these actions.  So he`s a very dangerous man for the President.  And I suspect that we will not hear him before Trump -- before the end of this term.

WILLIAMS:  I want to thank your big three tonight, another consequential night.  We really appreciate your contribution to our conversation.  Elizabeth Bumiller, Jackie Calmes, Elliot Williams, thank you.

And coming up, new reporting on the Feds Counterintelligence efforts during the earliest stages of the Russia investigation before anybody knew anything.

And later, as the President insists faith helped him get through the investigation he still calls a witch hunt, his allies are putting their hopes on Democrats screwing up the next move as THE 11TH HOUR is just getting under way on a Thursday night with a view of the West Wing.


WILLIAMS:  New reporting from "The New York Times" today reveals back in September 2016 the FBI sent an investigator posing as a research assistant to meet with then Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos.  Adam Goldman, Michael Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti write, "the FBI sent her to London as part of the counterintelligence inquiry opened that summer to better understand the Trump campaign`s links to Russia.  The American government`s affiliation with the woman, who said her name was Azra Turk, is one previously unreported detail of an operation that has become a political flash point.  The decision to use Ms. Turk in the operation aimed at a Presidential campaign official shows the level of alarm inside the FBI during a frantic period when the bureau was trying to determine the scope of Russia`s attempts to disrupt the 2016 election but could also give ammunition to Mr. Trump and his allies for their spying claims.".

Last month Attorney General Barr made headlines after saying this on Capitol Hill.


WILLIAM BARR, U.S. GENERAL ATTORNEY:  I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.  I`m not talking about the FBI necessarily, but intelligence agencies more broadly.

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN, (D) NEW HAMPSHIRE, APPROPRIATIONS CMTE.:  So suggesting, though, that spying occurred?

BARR:  I don`t -- well, I guess you could -- I think there is -- spying did occur.  Yes, I think spying did occur.


BARR:  The question is whether it was predicated, adequately predicated, and I`m not suggesting it wasn`t adequately predicated but I`d need to explore that.


WILLIAMS:  At yesterday`s hearing Barr once again defended his use of the word spying.  Here with us tonight to talk about it, the aforementioned Michael Schmitt, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington correspondent for "The New York Times" and Clint Watts, former FBI Special Agent and former member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, he is this days a distinguished fellow at the foreign policy research institute.  Happens to be author of "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News."  We should add Research Assistant to the end of that list.

Hey, Michael, walk us through how this story played out.  Does it begin with three people walked into a bar?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, THE NEW YORK TIMES WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I mean, what the story shows is just the extent that the FBI went to in order to try and learn what was going on between the Russians and the campaign.  They wanted to have a government investigator, someone who was trained, someone who could collect evidence, someone who could testify at a trial to be on the ground for this operation as one of their informants made these contacts.  And it just shows the extent of it.

Now, people on the right will say, look, this is just the latest example of the spying that they would go so far as to put an investigator on the ground in this type of situation.  From the bureau`s perspective, the bureau would say, look, this gives us eyes and ears.  This gives it some oversight.  This means our informants are not just out there freelancing.  There are folks that can keep a watch on this and make sure it doesn`t go off the rails.

But what it is, is a picture into what counterintelligence looks like, something that we don`t see a lot but we have learned so much about since the 2016 campaign.

WILLIAMS:  Clint Watts, does this sound -- does this look familiar to you?

CLINT WATTS, FMR. FBI SPECIAL AGENT:  Yes, this would be exactly what I would expect in a counterintelligence investigation.  If you think about it from the bureau`s perspective, they watch widespread hacking go on for pretty much a year at this point.  They think it`s Russia but they`re not sure.  They have a tip from the Australian government about Russia has e- mails and it`s coming from someone inside the campaign.

Paul Manafort, who they`ve interviewed before, surfaces strangely in the campaign as campaign manager.  Carter Page, who they had interviewed before because he had been a target by the Russian Intelligence Services, he shows up again inside the campaign.  The other one as you see aggressive social media influence from Russia and you see WikiLeaks dumping e-mails out there.

I think another point that`s really critical in this is you need to put an agent into this environment for a few reasons.  One, they may have to go testify later on as part of this investigation if something surfaces because it`s not just a counter-intel investigation, it`s also an investigation into the hacking.  This is someone who said Russia has e- mails.


WATTS:  So they were also investigating this entire e-mail hacking case that had been going on it seems like well into the spring.  This person may actually have to testify.  And you want to have an agent in there because they can also answer -- they know the context of the questions.  So if they get a lead or a follow-up you`re not relying through your informant, you actually have someone there who knows the case.

WILLIAMS:  Why then would George Papadopoulos say this on Twitter? I agree with everything in this suburb article except Azra Turk clearly was not FBI.  She was CIA affiliated with Turkish Intel.  She could hardly speak English and was tasked to meet me about my work in the energy sector offshore, Israel/Cyprus which turkey was competing with.  Do you buy it?  Do you have any reason to believe it or doubt it?

WATTS:  I have a little more confidence in "The New York Times" story than I do for George Papadopoulos.

WILLIAMS:  You have confidence for Mr. Schmidt.

WATTS:  But, I mean, let`s see what plays out in terms of who actually is in the source who comes in there.  But I think the important point is there was a placement put in there because they were trying to figure out in terms of this counterintelligence investigation, it`s a defensive counterintelligence investigation.  They`re trying to find out did the Russian government actually penetrate into a Presidential campaign?  They need to make sure that is not happening, so you`re going to take this maneuver for sure.

WILLIAMS:  Michael, people want to know what the Trump campaign was like.  We read from the Mueller report, "Papadopoulos contacted Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski via LinkedIn, as one does, and e-mailed campaign official Michael Glassner about his interest in joining the Trump campaign.  On March 2 of 2016, Papadopoulos sent Glassner another message reiterating his interest.  Glassner pass along word of Papadopoulos`s interest to another campaign official, Joy Lutes, to notify Papadopoulos by e-mail that she had been told by Glassner to introduce Papadopoulos to Sam Clovis of Iowa, the Trump campaign`s national co-chair and chief policy adviser."

Now, here`s the magic of a campaign.  Listen to what the President says to "The Washington Post" editorial board 19 days after that.


TRUMP:  George Papadopoulos, he`s an oil and energy consultant, excellent guy.


WILLIAMS:  Excellent guy, Michael.  Is this kind of freelancing, the name salad we just read aloud, common.

SCHMIDT:  No, I don`t think it`s common.  I don`t think it`s as common as other campaigns would function, but I think what you`re talking about gets at the question sort of in the Mueller report about the Trump campaign.  Was the Trump campaign disorganized that allowed people like George Papadopoulos, who had had sort of weird connections to different, you know, foreigners, particularly these Russians, you know, people talking about Russian e-mails into the inner circle of the campaign.

You know, was it because it was so atypical that they were able to be on foreign policy advisers to the President?  Or were they just really well- coordinated and could coordinate with the Russians?  As Mueller found there was none of that coordination.  There was not -- they couldn`t prove that.  So this sort of plays into the notion that this thing was a mess and that maybe when Trump campaign officials will say things like we didn`t even know where our campaign office was in Iowa, so how could we collude with the Russians?  Maybe there is some truth to that.

WILLIAMS:  Clint, I have to say, this also plays into the notion that there was -- that the "s" word was operative, that this was spying.

WATTS:  Yes, it`s interesting how this sort of plays out.  From my perspective, spying on the campaign would mean we`re gathering widespread intelligence on the campaign and their activities.  I don`t see that as such.  These were leads that the FBI absolutely had to follow up on.

You could not leave a tip about e-mails you`re already investigating out on the table whenever it`s come in through a foreign intelligence partner like this.  You would have to follow it up and determine valid, invalid, is this a penetration or is this a coincidence?  Were the Russians trying to throw bait?  Did anybody go for it?

You would -- you`d have to run that to ground.  I don`t know how you wouldn`t run it to ground and the FBI would be deeply irresponsible if they did not close that out.

WILLIAMS:  As we saw tonight, there were only two guys we wanted to talk to about this story.  Michael Schmidt, Clint, thank you very much.  We`re going to hold them here, take a break, come back and continue our discussion.

Coming up, the information that Trump says he assumes Mueller has and he declares to be just fine.  And if House Democrats have their way, they could soon be asking Mueller about it.  We`ll run that to ground when we come back.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Even my finances, it must have been looked at.  For $35 million, I assume they looked at my taxes.  I assume that Mueller looked at my financial statements.  For $35 million and having 20 people plus 49 FBI agents and all of the staff and all of the money that was spent, I assume they looked at my taxes, which are fine.  And I assume -- except they are under audit, by the way.


WILLIAMS:  Members of Congress could be soon asking Robert Mueller in person if he has looked at the President`s financial statements.  As we reported, House Judiciary has started discussions directly with Mueller`s team about coming in to testify.  Nothing finalized.  As we said, a big complication here, he remains, Mr. Mueller does, an employee of the Justice Department, a hard pass holder.  So his boss is one Bill Barr until the day of Mueller`s next retirement.

Our guests remain with us, Michael Schmidt and Clint Watts.

Clint, I`d like to begin with you.  I assume that as witnesses go, even as adept as the Democrats have proved themselves at catering, Mueller cannot be shaken, cannot be stirred.  What would you ask him?

CLINT WATTS, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT:  There`s only really two questions.  I think he probably wouldn`t answer either.  I mean he`s going to get asked a ton of questions and he`s going to go back to his report and say this is what I found in my report, you can read it on page whatever.

WILLIAMS:  There you go.

WATTS:  The question that will inevitability come up is, is the President exonerated in your opinion?  And he is going to say it`s not my role to decide exonerated or not, it`s to gather the evidence.  I think the one question that could come up is, if there is not a DOJ policy that says you can`t subpoena or indict a sitting president, would you have done that?  Meaning were there barriers that were keeping you from doing things that you normally would do in other cases?  I think that is a valid question and might be one avenue to actually challenge him on to see if there were no barriers, if this isn`t the president, if this is someone else, would you have pursued those investigative steps?

WILLIAMS:  Michael Schmidt, let me amend the question to you a little bit.  Coming out of Barr`s testimony, can you name some questions you are anxious to put -- eager to put before Mr. Mueller?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, THE NEW YORK TIMES WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Well, was Barr`s account of his conversations and back and forth with Mueller after Barr sent his conclusions, his baseline conclusions to congress, after the report was finished, are Barr`s characterizations of his interactions with Mueller accurate?  He says that he had a phone conversation which Mueller complained about the media coverage.  Now folks that know Bob Mueller know that he`s not really someone to complain about the media coverage.

So was Mueller complaining directly about how Barr had characterized his findings and not included them in his first letter to Congress or was he really just complaining about the media coverage?  Because that was the way that Barr tried to portray it yesterday.  And there`s been, you know, obviously conflicting accounts that, you know, have, you know, come out about these sort of interactions and how upset the Mueller team was about how Barr portrayed their work and it would be very interesting to hear directly from Mueller about that and about what their feelings were about how the Justice Department has characterized their work.

And that I think will be something that folks on the Hill will really want to push on because they`re trying to figure out whether Barr is giving them accurate information.  There`s already questions about something else that Barr has said in a previous hearing just a few weeks ago.

WILLIAMS:  To our audience, again, these are the two guys we wanted to talk to you about the story tonight.  Michael Schmidt, Clint Watts, we always appreciate the time you spend with us.  Thank you very much.

And coming up, Bill Barr`s absence wasn`t the only thing unusual about that hearing in the House today.  A veteran journalist and veteran of Congress both weigh in on this weird day, this unprecedented week.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The message is that Bill Barr is a chicken.


WILLIAMS:  And we got that part.  Possibly the most obvious sign of dysfunction on Capitol Hill today, as the House Judiciary Committee gathered to confront Bill Barr`s empty chair this morning, theatrical device number one.  The scene featured a Democratic congressman from Tennessee with a fake chicken and a bucket of KFC and a hearing room with any chair, lest anyone miss the point about the chicken.

We are guessing Speaker Pelosi might have wished that the committee under Chairman Nadler would have presented a different face to the world.  Returning to our broadcast tonight, Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for "The Washington Post" and David Jolly, a former Republican member of Congress from the state of Florida who has since left the GOP.

Eugene, honestly, it does somewhat erode your moral outrage at the bank of microphones in the hallway when you`re talking about being stood up by the attorney general when it appears the biggest decision your committee made thus far today was extra crispy or original recipe.  Is -- as a parent would say, is this how they`re going to handle responsibility?  And is Bob Mueller really going to run down there eager to testify before a committee despite knowing at least he`ll eat well?

EUGENE ROBINSON, THE WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST:  Well, Brian, I don`t think it was a good look, OK?  I don`t think it was a good look to, you know, when it occurs to you to bring the props to the hearing room, just leave the props at home.  It didn`t -- I don`t think it worked.  Congressman Steve Cohen is a character.  Maybe should have stayed out of character today.

The point was made.  Certainly if you wanted to make the point, the empty chair was enough to make the point.  That doesn`t solve the problem.  That doesn`t solve the problem the committee faces which is they wanted to hear from Bill Barr.  He refused to come.  They have serious questions to ask him, including about the misrepresentations, to say the least, he has made to Congress in the past about his interactions with Mueller.  So that doesn`t get him any closer to Barr or the truth.

WILLIAMS:  David Jolly, same question.

DAVID JOLLY, FORMER REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN:  Yes, listen, I have offered some constructive criticism, if you will, of Speaker Pelosi, that she needs to express more urgency.  And what I mean by that is this really should be the speaker`s moment.  You know, to the conversation you were having with Eugene, the props of the bucket of chicken would have worked in some environments but not others.  It certainly doesn`t command the gravity of the moment.  This is where the leader of the House of Representatives as speaker I think needs to take not a deferential approach to her committee chairperson but a leadership role.

And this is a tough position for her to be in.  If they do not move to impeach an attorney general who she said today committed a crime then the natural question is why is she allowing a crime to be committed on her watch?  Similarly, if they do not move to impeach the President based on the obstruction charges in the Mueller report, she essentially is accepting the declination decision of Attorney General Barr.  But on the other hand she knows privately, and though this hasn`t really been discussed often, her first turn at speakership, while it was historic, it also ended in the greatest historic losses of a majority since World War II.

Her speakership ended with her losing 63 Democratic seats in the House of Representatives.  And I believe part of Speaker Pelosi`s acknowledgement, if you will, to the reality of the politics and the polling on this is a reflection of her past experience in the speakership.

WILLIAMS:  Eugene, the Congressman makes a great point.  What`s it going to be for the Democrats?  This window is narrow because your President is saying this whole matter is done.

ROBINSON:  Mm-hmm.  Right.  And clearly it`s not done, but the question is how to proceed along what roads and how quickly.  I think David is right.  I think Nancy Pelosi -- look, the speaker of the House, she has to have in mind the next House election.  She has to have in mind her majority, maintaining it, expanding it, certainly not losing it.  And so her eye is not strictly toward the presidential election.

So she could -- and she has to calculate that politically.  At the same time she has to do her duty as speaker of the House and she -- this problem of what to do about the President`s obstruction of justice was indeed dumped in her lap so she can`t just let it sit there.  She does have to -- she has to let the committees have hearings and she has to move forward.  The question I think for her is at what speed.

WILLIAMS:  Eugene and David have agreed to stay with us through the break.

And just ahead, Democrats now have 21 choices for 2020.  The President says there`s still not a winner in that bunch.  We`ll talk about it when we come back.



SEN, MICHAEL BENNET, (D) COLORADO, CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT:  I think the fact that the field is as big as it is has coalesced as little as it has creates a real opportunity for all of us that are in the race, and there`s some great people in the race.  Overall, I`m really happy that we`ve got a large diverse field, in part because I think the American people don`t know what the National Democratic Party stands for.


WILLIAMS:  Colorado Senator Michael Bennet becomes the 21st, 21 Democrats now in the 2020 race.  President Trump has largely ignored the growing field of candidates, choosing to focus instead on one particular candidate.  Witness yesterday`s Twitter obsession with one Joe Biden.  And again tonight he was back on the topic on Fox News.



TRUMP:  I think that Biden seems to have a lead.  I`d be very happy if it were Biden.


TRUMP:  Sleepy Joe.  I think he does a -- I think he did a bad job.  I`d be running against --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  So you think he`s beatable?

TRUMP:  I wish him well.  I`d like him to get it.  I`d be happy with Bernie.  I personally think it`s those two.


WILLIAMS:  New reporting from Politico indicates Trump`s aides including his son-in-law just down the law don`t like the Biden obsession.  They`ve been ordered not to feed into it.  "Trump campaign officials received a directive from the President`s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, don`t meddle in primary politics.  According to one aide, we`ve asked him, I`ve personally asked him to stop us.  It`s not helping us.  It`s helping Biden.  We don`t think Biden can make it out of the woke Democratic Party, but he will if the President gives him oxygen."

Eugene Robinson and David Jolly back for our double jeopardy round.

And, Eugene, since we`ve been on the air, what, three minutes ago the President tweeted containing this sentence, the Mueller report strongly stated there was no collusion with Russia.  Those are the stakes.  And tick-tock with thanks to Kesha, who is out there, who is going do beat that?  First primary eight months from now.

ROBINSON:  Well, that`s a good question.  We don`t know yet, right?  We don`t know -- we haven`t even seen the Democratic candidates on a stage together in a debate.  It will take two nights for the first debate because there are so many of them.  It will be harder, I think, for somebody to break through in that setting.  But it`s going to take a little time.

You know, Joe Biden, I think, had a pretty spectacular launch to his -- to his campaign and he has been aided greatly by President Trump, who has reinforced Biden`s narrative of a one-on-one between Biden and Trump.  That`s been good for Biden.

WILLIAMS:  David Jolly, you`ve been -- your name has been on a ballot.  You`ve been in the business.  For people who don`t understand the motivator that politics is, let`s take Senator Bennet.  He is in the middle of a battle against prostate cancer, which he assures everybody he`s fine and he`s winning.  To become Democrat number 21 in this race to get up, look in the mirror and say the nation needs you, what you are serving, what does that and what will propel him because it`s crowded?

JOLLY:  You know, look, he`s been a successful senator from Colorado, and so I`m sure he believes at his brand of Democratic politics are right for the moment.  So do the other 20 Democrats in the race.  I think the takeaway from the one week I guess that Joe Biden`s been in this race that I see is his numbers are very strong and they`re real.  They`re deep.  They seem to have some staying power.  I mean, you`re looking at point spreads of 15 to 20 points of a lead, which suggests that people -- though the party continues to wrestle with ideology that is traditionally more progressive, perhaps, than Joe Biden, there is still a strong constituency there saying we want to go against Donald Trump with the nominee being Joe Biden.

Donald Trump`s playing a dangerous game by making this a one-on-one with Joe Biden right now.  I expect the race to get very vicious.  I believe Donald Trump may weaponize the Department of Justice to go after Biden and his son over this Ukraine matter.  And I think in the Democratic primary, you`re going to see Biden get attacked saying he`s not progressive enough.  And the question is, will that work?  Is Biden`s constituency actually that constituency that`s OK with him not being progressive enough or not?  We don`t know that yet.  We`ll see.

WILLIAMS:  Eugene Robinson and David Jolly, gentlemen, it is always a pleasure.  Thank you so much for coming on this Thursday night.

And coming up for us, a powerful thing happened today across a whole country.  Something impossible to imagine happening here.


WILLIAMS:  Last thing before we go tonight.  Perhaps because of this recent renewed attention to that horrible summer night in Charlottesville when young men with torches chanted "Jews will not replace us" and "blood and soil" translated from the original German.  Perhaps because of the anti- Semitism we`ve seen obviously and ominously on the march here and in Europe of late, it`s important to point out that today was Holocaust Remembrance Day.  And on this day for two minutes each year something incredible happens.  Israel stops.  With few exceptions, they try to stop everything, traffic, walking, talking, all business transactions.

The air raid sirens, which are a regular fixture in Israel sound at midday for two minutes and people are asked to be silent and remain where they are, remember the deaths of 6 million Jews.  More importantly, never forget.  The entire nation of about 9 million people, the Jewish state that roared to life with the hard work of arriving refugees and holocaust survivors stops to remember on Yom Hashoah every year.

And a journalist reminded us today that the global Jewish population of approximately 15 million is still lower than it was in 1939.  In other words, as Rosenberg put it today, "So many Jews were murdered that we still haven`t recovered demographically after 80 years."

Sit with that for a moment.  And so we will as we leave you tonight with that powerful thought.  We`ll dedicate it to our friend Rita and her late husband Izzy, both survivors, their children, grandchildren and, God willing, their great grandchildren.

That is our broadcast do this Thursday night.  Thank you for being with us and good night from NBC News headquarters here in New York.

  THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.                                                                                                     END